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Friday, June 11, 2021

Popes, Chalices, And Incense–Why Did Felicity Marvel Ever Leave The Church? And Why Was It So Hard To Return?

Felicity Marvel grew up in a good Catholic home.  She made her First Communion, was confirmed, and went to Mass every Sunday; but unlike other girls her age, she wondered at the mystery of the Mass. She whispered the Latin words of the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo; and along with the priest, recited the Agnus Dei.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

She loved the Mass and was unhappy when the priest replaced the chalice in the tabernacle, wiped the paten clean and polished it with silk until it shone, genuflected and knelt before the altar and the crucifix, crossed himself, turned to the congregation, and said, ‘Ite, missa est’.  

Most girls of her age heard only summer sounds through the open doors and windows of the church, but Felicity heard the intonement of the priest, the ringing of the bells, the rustle of his chasuble and gown, the soft step of his slipper on the polished marble altar floor, the creaks and chimes of the old church tower, and the procession of congregants to the communion rail.

There was something mystical and unique about the Mass – not the mystery of the Consecration, turning bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ – but the ceremony, the pageantry, the music, the language, the elegant vestments, the urns of flowers on the altar, the sound of the censer on its chain, and the heavy perfumed scent of frankincense.  As the bells rang at the Consecration, and as the priest raised the host and recited the liturgy, she wept.

Domine, non sum dignus
ut intres sub tectum meum,
sed tantum dic verbum,
et sanabitur anima mea

Image result for images priest at the consecration of the mass

The humility of the words and the faith they implied were not simply ritual – every Sunday’s repeated formalities – but expressions of profound faith, a trust in a mystical, intimate, compassionate, and forgiving God. There was nothing  like it – not Puccini nor the symphony; not the Grand Canyon or the Rockies.  It was the combination of mystery, drama, and beauty that made the Mass more exultant, more resonant, and more elating than anything else.

Felicity, like many young women of her age and generation fell away from the Church in the Sixties.  It had become politicized and criticized as a manipulative, predatory, aggressive, and arrogant institution which created a spiritual autocracy – ‘mystery, miracles, and authority’ as Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov called it.  

Christ had betrayed his followers when he said that man cannot live by bread alone, suggesting that only through spiritual faith in him, would the poor, the hungry, and the desolate find peace.  Rather than, in all his divine power, giving them food, shelter, and well-being, he offered only the hope – not even the promise – of salvation, and as such deceived them and made way for the most influential, powerful, and exploitative institution the world had ever known.

Image result for images ivan's devil dostoevsky

This was a lock, stock, and barrel condemnation.  There was no middle ground – an appreciation, say, of the original principles of the Church or the disciplined logic of its early theologians; a respect for the rationale and the careful exegesis of the Bible, while admitting the militaristic geopolitical Crusades.  There was only a re-calibration of spirituality, a removal of intermediaries, and a come-one-come-all communality of interest.  

It was hard to be a believing, practicing Catholic in those days.  Whether one was opposed to the idea of institutionalizing religious experience, or saw the Church through the lens of historicism, or simply could never forgive the geopolitical miseries caused by it, the Church was anathema, antithetical to all that the social revolution intended.

While Felicity endorsed the purpose and meaning of the cultural revolution, she found it tedious.  There was no essential core to radical secularism.  Its outward social purpose had no inward direction.  Even if a Utopian world of social harmony could be achieved, then what? Not only were such expectations unrealistic, idealistic, and denied by the aggressive, individualistic nature of millennia of human settlements, without divine purpose they were, ipso facto meaningless.  

Augustine’s The City of God expressed this best.  As a good Christian who evolved from doubting roots into Christianity’s most influential theologian, Augustine argued for the co-existence if not integration of church and state.  As a good Christian, he believed that nothing was possible without faith – not civil society, not government, not family or community.  Faith precedes logic, civil discourse, laws, and governance, he said.  Without it, mankind would be lost.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas reiterated Augustine’s principles in his dissent on Obergefell:

Human dignity has long been understood in this country to be innate. When the Framers proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” they referred to a vision of mankind in which all humans are created in the image of God and therefore of inherent worth. That vision is the foundation upon which this Nation was built.

Moreover most Christians, Jews, and Muslims believe that morality as well as dignity have existed since the Law of Moses, the teachings of Christ, and the lessons of Mohammed. The first chapter of the Gospel of John explicates the concept of logos – an eternal, universal Word that has existed even before God the Creator.  The Word is light, reason, and in moral terms, truth.

St. John

It was not long before the tedium of causes, social reform, and radical individualism were edged aside by Felicity’s foundational beliefs; and she decided to return to religion. 

However, she found the Church a much-changed institution.  Singing, hand shaking, brotherhood, an English liturgy, and a happy spiritual communalism had replaced mystery and mysticism.  Sermons were only tenuously Christian.  The young priests spoke more like their Methodist colleagues about social justice and the ethical lessons of Jesus, not his salvational ones.  They had become even more tedious than the secularists of the Sixties.

The Church had also undergone a major scandal – child abuse.  It was one thing for lay men to seduce young boys, another entirely for a priest, a man with a direct descendance from Jesus Christ himself through the sacrament of Ordination. The priest was not only disobeying secular laws, but disregarding the holy, sanctified, spiritual purpose of the priesthood.  Worst of all, these priests betrayed children. 

Image result for tom toles cartoon suffer the children priests

Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s novel, finds the horror of parental abuse of children the most heinous and evil of human crimes.  Where is Jesus in the face of such human corruption? Man might not live by bread alone, but shouldn’t his hand be stayed from betraying little children?

Yet Felicity was not deterred.  The Pope, cardinals, archbishops and the entire Catholic hierarchy were only human.  Was it not likely that they would commit the same moral travesties as other men? And did these travesties deny the legitimacy and relevance of Christ and the foundational wisdom of the early Church?

But where was Felicity to turn now that the mystery, pomp, ceremony, and operatic ceremonies of the Mass had been replaced or eliminated?  How could she return to a Church which had become as tedious as progressivism? A church of gay men, tepid faith, urgent reformism, and happy talk was not for her; but without the Church, wouldn’t the theology of Aquinas and Augustine be too free-floating and indistinct?

She tried reading Thomas’ Summa Theologica  but foundered on its academic intellectualism.  Augustine’s Confessions were more accessible, but too removed from her own life.  Paul’s Epistles were amusing, anecdotal, somewhat preachy sermons to his churches.  Recovering faith would not be that easy.

Image result for images thomas aquinas

The Church of her youth had made belief easy, and the reasoning of Dostoevsky was never more resonant.  Mystery, miracles, and authority were indeed sheltering in a world of disbelief.  Without the institution of the Church, only spiritual confusion could result – or at best a tepid, inchoate commitment.

This was the tragedy of lapsed Catholics.  Not only was the operatic pageantry gone but also the miracles, mystery, and authority – the rules and regulations, prescribed notions and rituals, received wisdom and approved liturgy, and obligations.  Even if women like Felicity wanted to return to the Church, they could not.  They foundered in their later years, wanting spiritual support, but finding none, facing death like Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich with terror not equanimity.

There was Felicity’s family who loved her and would be with her during her dying; but as Tolstoy wrote, “We all die alone”; and without at least a fingerhold on the divine, it would be a very lonely death indeed.

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